It’s time to bring you wonderful readers something new to devour; every fortnight you can settle yourself down with a glass of your favourite whiskey and read A Dram With. We’ll be catching up with some well-loved industry professionals to find out about their current projects, careers and of course, their dram of choice.
First up we sat down with the incredible Nancy Fraley, Still Austin Whiskey Co.’s master blender, finding out the secrets to her successes over the years and the changes to her palate.
So sit back, relax and enjoy!
Phoebe Calver (PC): I’d love to start off by hearing about how you found yourself in this wonderful world of whiskey?
Nancy Fraley (NF): Believe it or not, I got my start in the whiskey industry by working in the high-end brandy world in the mid-2000’s. I worked for a 10th generation Cognac maker, Hubert Germain-Robin, co-founder of the world-esteemed Germain-Robin brandy house. Hubert came to northern California in the early 1980’s with an ancient Cognac still and began making high-quality, low-yield brandies. When I worked there, we used Old World artisanal production techniques with grape varietals that were not legally permissible to be distilled for Cognac, such as Pinot Noir, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, Palomino and Viognier, to make a Cognac-style brandy with a New World sensibility. The experience and knowledge I gained from working there was an unrepeatable, once-in-a-life-time education.
It wasn’t until I started my own consulting practice 10 years ago that I began working with whiskey. I took what I had learned of the ancient French maturation, warehousing and blending techniques and started applying them to New World, North American whiskey traditions, specifically to Bourbon, rye whiskey, and American single malt.
Nearly every whiskey distillery that you hear about today who advertises that they use French Cognac or Armagnac production techniques to make their whiskey more than likely either learned from my mentors, Hubert Germain-Robin and Dan Farber (master distiller and master blender/owner of Osocalis alambic brandy), or from me. Perhaps there are a few others out there with the same experience, I don’t say that from an ego perspective, but because these old techniques are very obscure and unknown in North America for the most part. Since French brandy producers tend to be tight-lipped about their techniques and kept them strictly in-house for centuries, my mentors and I would most likely have been the only avenues for learning them here in North America. The only way one could know about them is if you’ve worked with these techniques personally, or learned from someone who has done so.
PC: For those looking to work their way into a role as Master Blender, what has your career path been and what forms of education/work experiences have best prepared you for the job?
NF: Well, my formal education has not been along the traditional trajectory lines of most people in this industry, but then again, I find this is often the case in the craft distilling world. I studied Tibetan Buddhism and got a master’s degree from Harvard University, and from there I went to law school in California, focusing on International Human Rights Law and Maritime and Admiralty law. Hardly a usual path to become a Master Blender! But I essentially “learned how to learn” from my formal education and together with an innate ability to nose and having a curious mind, I was able to teach myself a lot. I also travelled the world exploring the great distilled spirits production traditions. But I really built the solid foundations of the art by studying with my mentors, such as Hubert Germain-Robin, rum maestro Luis Ayala, brandy greats Dan Farber, Alain Royer, Marc Darroze, Francis Deche, and other master distillers and blenders from other traditions that I have studied with over the years. I’ve tried to study cross-cultural approaches to blending, which has been enormously useful in my work.
My advice to those who want to work their way into a role as a master blender, even if their formal education is not in chemistry, fermentation science, viticulture and enology, beer brewing science, etc., is to always have an open mind and to learn as much as you can from a variety of sources. Having a natural talent in nosing is a given, but as long as that is in place, the rest can be learned on the job. But just when you think you’ve made it and you know a lot about maturation and blending, that’s really the time to be humble. There are people out there that have four or five decades of personal experience which is backed by a family lineage of 300- or 400-hundred years or more in the business.
PC: How would you say your palate has changed and developed over the years and what advice would you give to someone looking to build theirs?
NF: I’ve noticed that as I’ve gotten older (I’m in my early 50’s), my ability for precise descriptive analysis has lessened a bit. It isn’t quite as easy for me as it was some years ago to pick up obscure notes in whiskey such as, “freshly baked Persian baklava with roasted green pistachios, augmented with a flaky, buttery phyllo dough, drenched in a delicate rose-water and honey syrup.”
But on a serious note, I find that as I’ve matured in my career, I also tend to analyse barrels quite differently than I did originally. So rather than focusing on aroma descriptors when I analyse barrels, I now concentrate upon the length on the palate, depth, complexity, finesse, delicacy, structure, and congener and tannin content, as well as maturation and blend potential. This is actually the way to analyse barrels that I was taught by my mentor Hubert.
PC: When did you join the team at Still Austin?
NF: I first met Chris and his dad, Cleveland Seals, and the other founders back in December 2013, when they took an American Distilling Institute Whiskey Distillation class in Seattle which I was co-teaching. We all really hit it off on a personal level, which was a huge plus. Then I heard from Chris again the beginning of 2014 when they were ready to get their distillery started, and I have happily been on this wonderful grain-to-glass Bourbon odyssey with them ever since.
PC: What is it about the brand that captured your imagination and interest?
NF: First and foremost, I fell in love with the people behind the brand. I particularly admire their meticulous attention to authenticity, an emphasis on capturing the local Austin, Texas terroir, and respecting the local history. The only part of the Bourbon that is not from Texas are the American white oak barrels, but I can assure you that if quality American white oak grew there, we would be using it!
For special Bourbon projects, we make sure that our finishing casks have some sort of historical connection to Texas, and to the city of Austin whenever possible. In early Texas history, father and son Moses and Stephen Austin had requested permission from Spain to form a settlement in Texas in 1821, and of course Sherry is from Spain, so right there is a very clear historical connection for using the PX Sherry casks for our finishing program.
PC: Could you talk me through the process of creation of your High-Rye Bourbon and your future plans for it?
NF: Our 100 per cent Texas grain High-Rye Bourbon is made from 70 per cent non-GMO white corn, 25 per cent Elbon rye, and 5 per cent “wild fire” malted barley. We wanted to use white corn, rather than the less flavorful industry standard #2 yellow dent corn, because white corn is much tastier. White corn masa flour is also used to make tortillas, which are a popular food in and around Austin.
We put our fermented “distiller’s beer” into a custom made 42-foot Forsyth column still. After distillation, we reduce the new make distillate to 118 and put it into 53-gallon, char #3 Independent Staves Company white American oak barrels. We like the lower char level because the intense Texas climate can be very aggressive with the whiskey, and we want to maintain the sweet, floral, and spicy grain notes which a higher char level would obliterate. We enter the new make into the barrel at a lower entry proof because we want to take advantage of both the alcohol and water-soluble elements that are pulled from the barrel. The alcohol soluble extractives offer some wood and vanilla notes, while the water-soluble extractives bring the caramelized wood sugars to the party.
The barrels are housed in our farm country rick houses, so there is a lot of exposure to fresh rural air and all the wild elements of Central Texas weather. During this maturation time, we use an old French brandy production technique called “slow reduction.” We add a little water to the barrels every month, slowly over the course of a year or more, and we also add the water slowly to the barrels themselves. In this way, we tease out various alcohol and water-soluble extractives at different proofs, creating a round mouthfeel, and maintaining the delicate oak and grain aromas that we’ve worked so hard to create.
As for the future, pretty soon we will be coming out with our 2-year old straight bourbon. The plan is for the overall age of the Bourbon to increase over time.
And this is unsolicited information I know, but we also have a 100% rye whiskey that will be coming on line soon. That whiskey is on a whole other stratosphere! As a rye fan, I can’t wait for its release.
PC: What is it about Texas that makes it so great for distilling and do you think (once all of this madness passes) that we will see a boom in craft whiskey producers in the state?
NF: God willing, the viral madness will end soon and we can all get back to a normal existence. I think Texas undoubtedly has one of the most unique environments for whiskey production in the world. It is informed by a collision of variables that make it exceptional, from a complicated history of various cultures and ethnic groups merging together, weather that ranges from intense heat, humidity, and thunderstorms to dry, arid climates in the western part of the state, coupled with an intense independent and innovative streak among its citizens. Last but not least, there is a collective folklore of rugged individualism of the Wild West and American Frontier which informs the whiskeys made there. These elements make for whiskeys that few places can replicate.
What all this means practical terms is that Texas distillers are pioneers in the use of heirloom grains used for whiskey production, and they have mastered the art of making high quality whiskey in inhospitable climates.
I don’t know whether there will be a boom in craft whiskey producers in the state once this frightening pandemic has passed, but I can guarantee that the craft producers who remain in business will continue to elevate their whiskey production to ever greater heights. Texas is one of the most exciting places in the world for whiskey production right now.
PC: How has the climate impacted the way create whiskey and the flavours you are able to create?
NF: The climate in Texas has most definitely had a tremendous impact upon the whiskey flavors that are able to be created. The rapidly fluctuating temperatures make it so that the whiskey is pushed quite deep into the barrels, and then is pulled back into barrels’ center, bringing with it a constellation of barrel extractives such as vanilla; the lactones and fat from the oak, giving notes such as coconut, celery and dill, as well as caramelized wood sugars. These notes, combined with the intense ingress and egress of oxygen to and from the barrel caused by the rapid changes in barometric pressure, creates new chemical reactions between the spirit, oak, and air. This process helps to create the flavor-packed whiskeys for which Texas is known.
PC: Where do you see Still Austin in five years in terms of the spirit you are producing?
NF: I see the average age of the Bourbon continuing to increase, with a 4-year-old product being released in the next two years, after the 2-year-old straight Bourbon comes on-line. My goal is to also set aside some barrels that are dedicated to a much longer-term maturation program, so that we’ll eventually have 8, 10, 12, 14 and even older barrels down the line. Because maturation happens so quickly in the Central Texas environment, the key is to be able to retard the tannin extraction enough so that we don’t end up with overly-tannic whiskey. This is where my French brandy production training comes in very handy.
I work as a team with our head of production and head distiller, John Schrepel. He’s absolutely brilliant when it comes to creating exciting, delicious new mash bills, but he also is a real pro in performing the less “sexy” job of maintaining consistency of quality on a daily basis, which is vital for any serious distillery. He comes up with a lot of original ideas and interesting whiskey experiments that we’ve laid down. John is the yang to my yin. In addition, he’s half my age, so his youthful exuberance and enthusiasm pairs well with my more experienced, cautious demeanor. But together, we’re coming up with some whiskeys that I believe will be unbelievably good in the next five years and beyond.
PC: Lastly, I’d like to finish up with your dram of choice right now. Why does it fit this moment for you?
NF: Wow, my favorite dram completely changes depending upon my mood, the time of year, time of day, what kind of spirit I’ve been working with that day, etc. I’ve been a vintage Armagnac fan and collector for many years, and of course coming from the American alambic brandy production tradition, I adore meticulously-crafted brandies such as Germain-Robin, Osocalis, or St. George Spirits, from California.
I love just about all brown spirits really, and especially Bourbon, although I’m also quite fond of tequila, mezcal, white and aged rums, Haitian clairin, brandies of all sorts, single malt and blended Scotch, as well as Irish, Canadian, Indian, Japanese, and Australian whisk(e)ys. I’m an equal opportunist!
To wrap up, I would have to say that the most important element in any spirit is that it is well-made and of high quality. Are the raw ingredients, such as grain, fruit, cane, or any other fermentable substrate of good quality, as well as the yeast and water sources? Is the fermentation clean, with no off-notes or aromatic defects? Is it distilled in the way it should be, given its intended purpose and length of time for maturation? If it is to be a matured spirit, has it been aged in quality oak of the correct size, with the proper warehousing and environmental requirements for that type of spirit? Is it obvious that much thought and care have gone into the élevage of that spirit?
If these requirements are met and the spirit is well-made, then I’ll eventually find my way to it!